“I have always loved the desert. One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs, and gleams…”
– Antoine de Saint-Exupéry –
When you go to Colombia’s Tatacoa Desert, no one is going to go with you. Among travelers, it’s one of those “Why are you bothering to go there?” kind of places. You can’t answer this question, you just know that the desert calls you.
The day you go from San Agustin to the Tatacoa Desert will be an adventure. All the workers at the bus companies in town will laugh at you for thinking you can get a direct bus to take you anywhere near there. Nope, it’s going to take several vehicles and several hours and you’ll be lucky if you get there before the sun goes down.
As you sit in a minivan headed toward Pitalito, you wonder if you even should’ve left lovely little San Agustin and that lovely eco-hostel filled with great people. But this rickety minivan is gliding forward along the edge of a mountain and it’s too late to jump out now. Besides, your days in Colombia are winding down so you gotta keep moving.
You’ve barely got time to set your feet down in the Pitalito bus station before people rush you over to another even more rickety minivan. Your van driver has communicated to another driver that there is a turista going to Neiva. There is one more spot on a Neiva-bound minivan and they’re saving it for you.
They quickly move your backpack from one van to the other. The attendant takes out a weather-worn booklet of tickets and hands you one as you hand over your pesos. Your spot on this van is half of a seat between the driver and a large man. Your task is to try not to panic the entire way. Out of all the passengers in the van, you have the best view of the unpaved road and the maniacal driving of everyone on it, including the driver sitting next to you.
You are thrilled to safely arrive in the dusty, busy little city of Neiva. But seriously, by now, you really should know better than to be relieved until you actually reach your destination. Neiva is not your destination.
After asking around to find transportation to Villavieja, you catch a ride in a large pickup truck collectivo where most of the seating is on benches in the cargo bed. But you’re lucky enough to be one of the first passengers so you get an actual seat. Yes, a seat!
Neiva is a ugly place made beautiful by the homeyness and friendliness of its people. Most people in this vehicle seem to know each other and they welcome you into their little transportation family. The Huila Department has vastly different landscapes — from the cloud forested mountains around San Agustin to the desert you’re headed to — but the one constant that flows through the region is kindness.
The truck empties as people return to their homes on the outskirts of the city and beyond. The truck’s final stop is Villavieja, a little town at the edge of the desert. But how do you get into the desert?
The sun is in pursuit of the horizon and you know chances of finding transport into the desert at this time are slim. Panic arises, the kind you get when you doubt your independence and wonder why you don’t just do things the easy way. But there is no time to dwell in panic, you have to act quickly.
Before you get off the truck, you ask the driver how to get into the desert. He says he can take you in for a price that’s astronomical for Colombia considering the distance. It will be a 15 minute drive but it’s about three times the cost of the hour ride from Neiva to Villavieja. Looking around the empty little desert town of Villaveija, you know this is your only option to get to the Tatacoa desert. So you fork over the pesos and he drives you into the desert.
The desert is empty. It’s golden. It’s glorious. The warm desert hues are even more radiant in the evening sun. You are nervous about going into such a desolate place on your own. You are exhilarated about going into such a desolate place on your own.
Dogs bark wildly as the driver pulls into a dirt driveway. He tells you this is the guesthouse you requested to be dropped off at. I looks like someone’s rustic desert home. A man comes out and he looks stunned to see that a visitor has arrived.
As you grab your things from the truck, he asks you which room you want to stay in. You have your pick of the lot — every single room is available. You pick a small private room with a private bathroom. It’s hot inside and as bare bones as a room can be. When you turn on the sink, you hear the water pouring onto the ground just outside your room. Desert livin’.
You lay out your still wet laundry from San Agustin knowing it will dry up fast, and go for a walk to explore the desert before the sun goes down. You see a rainbow and cacti and glimmering clouds. You see picturesque rust colored eroded landscapes that look like a miniature Grand Canyon. You see no one.
Back at the guesthouse the family is making dinner. They have you sit at the visitors’ table. Tonight, it is just you. Three generations of the owner’s family eat at the family table. But little girls in the family aren’t satisfied with being stuck at the family table. They come to your table and ask you question after question. They are fascinated with the curious stranger. They say your name over and over again as if repeating it will make it less foreign. They giggle and play around you and make you smile.
After dinner you return to your guest room which you now realize is powered by solar electricity. The single, dimly lit lightbulb that hangs from the ceiling barely lights up the room. You were hoping to stay out and look up at the stars, but your stargazing plans are foiled by clouds. So you stay in your room and read by flashlight for awhile before calling it a night. Sleep tight, don’t let the sand flies bite.
You wake up before the sun rises; before the desert becomes unbearably hot. You go for a walk in the opposite direction of the previous evening. Again, the desert glows, the desert is melancholic, the desert is poetic.
When you researched the Tatacoa Desert before you went there, you saw that its name can be translated to Sadness Valley or Valley of Sorrows. Now that you’re here, the desert’s name seems fitting. It looks like a forlorn, lonely place.
But it’s not a sadness that festers and explodes. It’s a beautiful, calm, cathartic sadness. In all that wide, sad, open desert, you confront yourself. You embrace the simultaneous melancholy and magnificence of the world, of life, of yourself. Immersed in the desert’s palpable harmony of beauty and sadness, you feel at peace. You know why the desert called you.
“What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well.”
– Antoine de Saint-Exupéry –